Memories, colours, sketches: India in the eyes of Egyptian artist Mohamed Abla

Maria K., Friday 21 Aug 2015

The exhibition takes place next week at Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in Zamalek

Mohamed Abla
Artwork by Mohamed Abla (Photo: courtesy of the artist)

The daily motion of multicoloured India has been captured by Mohamed Abla in a series of quick sketches which are now on display at Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture (MACIC) in Zamalek.

Translated into spots of colour, Delhi almost becomes an abstract composition, yet familiar objects are instantly recognisable. A rickshaw, a cow, a porter with a load on his head suddenly steps out of the painting only to disappear again in the crowd of brushstrokes.

The exhibition mostly comprises of sketches in acrylics on paper which the artist made while traveling to India. In his signature manner, Abla inserts text comments into his paintings.

“You don’t have to understand everything,” he writes next to the image of the fierce goddess Kali with a severed head in her hand.

It was obvious during the opening of the exhibition, titled A Visit to India, on 20 August that the visual symbols that the artist selected and brought home to share have a natural appeal without explanations. One could see how Abla’s seemingly naive style makes people relax and perceive things in a new way, with the curiosity and openness of a child’s eye.

Mohamed Abla
Exhibition opening at MACIC, Cairo (Photo: Maria K.)

Ahram Online (AO): What is new in your art after your trip to India?

Mohamed Abla (MA): I became brave to use strong colours. This time I'm using very light and fluorescent colours. They really exist there [in India], they are not invented. This is India's influence.

In fact, from the beginning of my trip I was fascinated by colour. How people use it in clothing, how they put strong [pigments] beside each other and it works! You don't see something like a common uniform that everybody is wearing. Even women dress to be different from everyone, each has her own taste and individuality. I feel there is a kind of respect for colours and ornaments.

It's amazing how these people admire the beauty of things. Just see the way they look at flowers - you will feel there is something. Even if they come from far, from small villages.

AO: Apart from colours, what else did you find fascinating?

MA: India also has a smell, not only colour. Just as you come out of the airport you start to feel it, this mix of everything: spices and sweat, gas and flowers. If you look at the street, you see people, cows, rickshaws, cars, everything in the mix. But they don't really collide; you would not see too many accidents. And sometimes they give an impression that not everybody knows where he's going; people are just walking. You can see an old man carrying something and walking. You see him in the morning in one part of the city and in the afternoon in another part, as if he's been walking for hours.

And of course the situation of many religions is very interesting. There is this great mix of spirituality and non-spirituality. There are a lot of symbols and secrets I still don't understand. I bought a translation of Bhagavad Gita, but I think it's very strange and hard to understand.

Mohamed Abla
Artwork by Mohamed Abla (Photo: courtesy of the artist)

AO: Your sketches show your interest in religious topics. Is it on a purely visual level, or something deeper?

MA: In Egypt we have a problem with fanaticism, and we have to learn how to solve this problem. I was trying to understand how Indians approach such dilemmas. It seems also that religion is a kind of a big business there.

When you go to different temples, Bahai, Sikh, Hindu, you feel that everybody is okay with what the others are doing. I attended one ceremony at a Krishna temple where they were burning a body, and on the other side there were Bahai and Sikh temples with their peace and music going on.

It’s amazing how the Indians really work to be up to date, to be modern. You see it in different directions - industry, art, and religion as well. I went to one Krishna temple and they have LCDs and laser shows; everything is very modern. And on the other hand, you see really small and simple temples with animals jumping and running around.

AO: So which ideas or attitudes do you think could be imported to Egypt from India?

MA: When I came back from India, I felt we can learn a lot from them, like tolerance to begin with, or how to be patient. I'm not patient myself, but in India you feel you can acquire this skill. Although they have problems, you don't see they feel sad about it. It's a kind of destiny which they respect or accept.

They are also very creative. And look at the handicrafts - how they respect them and how they work to reach perfection. There are a lot of similarities between India and Egypt in this sector, but India is four steps ahead of us. Somehow they manage to keep the tradition awake and alive.

Mohamed Abla
"On the streets, you always find someone living all on his own; he lives within his mind" -- Artwork by Mohamed Abla (Photo: courtesy of the artist)

AO: It is not the first time you have used travel to learn and refresh your vision of your own country. Can you describe in a few words the western influence you brought back from Switzerland and Germany?

MA: Discipline, structure, being serious. And also the value of charity, helping others and helping the community. People really spend their time and money to do something for the community. This I learned in Europe, and especially in the United States. My feeling was always to go, to learn something and come back and give it here.

AO: Do you feel the interest between Egypt and India is mutual?

MA: I feel the Indian people want to make contact with Egypt, to build a relationship. Egypt and India in earlier times – the 12th and 13th centuries -- had more connections, because Cairo was a centre for trade between East and West, so we have a kind of sympathy for Indian culture since then. We had very good contact during the time of Nasser, Nehru and Indira Gandhi, but it was at a high level. It was a strong relationship but a diplomatic one. We never had a close relationship at a lower level, between the people. This is what I'm thinking about now and trying to push forward.

I am also a board member of the Egypt-India Friendship Association, which helped with organising this exhibition. We're now trying to do something like exchange visits with Indians. We will invite Indian artists to come, and send Egyptian artists over there too. I can invite artists to my Art Centre in Fayoum. It is a very beautiful place, like a real paradise, and it is my aim to help young artists to get to know each other, and to bring together people from different cultures.

We have been working for ten years already and we have had artists from all over the world, but not from India yet. I hope together we can do something that's not only Bollywood influenced, something more real.

AO: Are you planning to visit India again?

MA: I've been to India two times, but India is very big and every part is different. I’ve just seen a small part of it: Delhi, Agra and Vrindavan. These two trips were very interesting and really moved me to sit and make sketches, to try to understand the people and the culture through observing. This is my way to concentrate and understand. And of course I wish I could stay longer and learn more. I wish I could go back again.

Mohamed Abla
Artwork by Mohamed Abla (Photo: courtesy of the artist)

The exhibition is open 23-26 August, 9am-3pm
Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture (MACIC),
3 Abo El-Feda Street, Zamalek, Cairo 

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